How Elizabeth I’s favourite archbishop became ‘Mr Croydon’

Croydon Parish Church, now known as Croydon Minster, is the last resting place of six Archbishops of Canterbury. This image from a postcard dated 1906

Croydon’s history is intertwined with the Archbishops of Canterbury, with six of them buried at Croydon Minster. Here DAVID MORGAN explains how two of the most powerful men in the country managed to survive the turbulent times of Tudor England

Apart from Canterbury Cathedral and the Chapel at Lambeth Palace, Croydon Minster has more Archbishops of Canterbury buried in one building than any other. Six clergymen who reached the very top of the ecclesiastical tree ended up being buried here. Each has an interesting story to tell about the difficulties of holding high office and the legacy that remains after you have gone. Much as Justin Welby, the current Archbishop, has to try to steer a path through controversies and discord, so too did his predecessors. Some were naturally more successful than others.

The association between Croydon and the archbishops is well-documented and existed for a thousand years.

The Manor of Croydon was connected with the Archbishop of Canterbury from at least the late Saxon period, with records of buildings dating back to before 960. Archbishops in the 15th and 16th centuries remodelled and rebuilt their official summer residence into what became Croydon Palace, forming the buildings of what we know today as Old Palace School. In the 19th century, the archbishops moved the summer palace to Addington.

Edmund Grindal: the first Archbishop to be buried in Croydon

But in all those centuries when the archbishops stayed in Croydon, what was then known as the Croydon Parish Church was where they would worship, and for some, where they would rest at the end of their days.

The first Archbishop to be buried in the Croydon church was Edmund Grindal, in 1583.

He is one of the very few church leaders through history who have held the three high offices in this country, being Bishop of London in 1559, Archbishop of York in 1570 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1576.

The fact that he was an academic of note can be seen in the fact that he was Master of Pembroke College from 1559 to 1562.

His church career paralleled his academic one at this stage, as he had been Precenter of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 1550s, too. In 1561, when St Paul’s was almost destroyed by fire for the first time (the fate which would befall the medieval building a century later, when it was replaced by Sir Christopher Wren’s building), it was Grindal who paid out £720 from his own resources and estate to get the cathedral back into working order.

After having been a chaplain to the Protestant boy king, Edward VI, Grindal was forced to flee the country early in 1554 when Edward’s devoutly Catholic sister, Mary, became Queen. At that time he had been nominated for the post of the Bishop of London, but was unable to take it up, fleeing to the relative safety in those turbulent times of Strasbourg.

Some of his colleagues who remained were burnt at the stake for refusing to give up their Protestantism. Grindal returned to England in January 1559 on the very day that Edward and Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, was made queen. With a protestant monarch once again, Grindal was able to resume his career.

The brass plaque in Croydon Minster which marks the site of Archbishop Grindal’s tomb

Life as Archbishop of Canterbury did not run smoothly, though. Elizabeth wanted him to stop the prophesying of various preachers and Puritans, but Grindal was unable to achieve this. Indeed, he displayed sympathies with them which eventually caused him to be placed under house confinement. At one point, Grindal could have been the first Archbishop, or indeed Pope, to be removed from office.

However, he was released from confinement, a sick man who wished to leave office but died before other decisions could be taken.

Coming from a lowly Cumberland family, Grindal realised the value of education and left money in his will for the founding of a school named St Bees, located south of Whitehaven, which still functions functioning today.

The reconstructed tomb of John Whitgift carries many clues to the archbishop’s life

His tomb was destroyed in the Croydon Church fire of 1867, but there is still on view a brass memorial in the chancel, together with framed stoned fragments.

John Whitgift is probably the most well-known of the archbishops buried in Croydon.

He took on the role from Grindal, and was in post from 1583 until 1604.

He evidently pleased Elizabeth because he did what Grindal was unable, or less-willing, to do and took a hard-line with the puritan side of the church, particularly the Quakers, many of whom were imprisoned.

When I lead tours of Croydon Minster and we stop at Whitgift’s reconstructed tomb, I always ask people for questions they would like answers for about his life. The stained glass window above the tomb shows visitors all aspects of his life.

Like Grindal he was an academic too, as can be seen by the university coats of arms. “Why is the Principality of Wales emblem included in the window?” is a favourite question.

John Whitgift: Mr Croydon

Several years ago there were two Welsh visitors who were excited to see Whitgift’s tomb. “If it hadn’t have been for this man we wouldn’t have got the Bible translated into Welsh,” they told us.

Elizabeth, the last of the Tudor monarchs, often stayed at Croydon Palace during her reign, and she would have wanted the Welsh Tudor dynasty to be the one to present bibles in their own language to the people of Wales.

Her Archbishop facilitated this desire by appointing William Morgan, as Bishop of Llandaff and installing him in London for a year near to the publishers and printers.

After listing the things which benefited Croydon through Whitgift’s legacies, one young visitor piped up, “Can we call him Mr Croydon?”

The almshouses in the town centre can be traced back to Whitgift’s time

Even in his legacy he evokes the common touch which is what he displayed while he was alive. Often visiting his almshouses the day after dining with Queen Elizabeth I, one can imagine the conversation with the residents and Whitgift about what she was wearing or whether a particular fashion has changed.

The earliest residents at the almshouses would have been staunchly loyal to the archbishop and the queen, as all of them would have been employed at some point by the archbishop as part of what was noted to be a very large retinue.

He wanted the almshouses to be a support for those who were too old and no longer in his employ.

Today, of course, the John Whitgift Foundation carries on the work begun by the archbishop of supporting the older members of society, in its two care homes and in the almshouses in the town centre, which date back to Whitgift’s time, as well as nurturing and encouraging the young through education.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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